Proposed changes at the Arts Council have caused squeals of outrage. Just cover your ears, advises Anthony Everitt
THE Arts Council's drama panel has a long, apoplectic tradition of threatening to resign; when I was a member in the far-off 1970s, I recall being in a semi-permanent state of incipient revolt.

But this is the first time they have decamped en masse. They don't like the fact that those who chair the council's various art-form panels have lost their seats as of right on its governing committee. They believe that this will transfer power to a "cultural bureaucracy less accountable, less accessible and increasingly remote from ... artists and audiences".

The departure of people like Alan Ayckbourn, Paul Allen and Thelma Holt is obviously an embarrassment. Attempts to recruit a new panel could well fail and it is possible that the dance and touring panels may resign as well (their chairmen already have). The word is that the music and literature panels will stay.

It is all very awkward, but does it really matter? Perhaps Gerry Robinson, the no-nonsense businessman from Granada who has just taken over as the Arts Council's chairman and pushed through this reform, has got a point. If we peer through the swirling clouds of soundbites and rhetoric, it looks as if he could, after all, be right and the fearless standard-bearers of the arts wrong.

There are big problems with the way the Arts Council has been organised in the past. One of them is technical and the other goes to the heart of its philosophy. The first is that the governing committee, or council, was too big. Until last week it had 23 members and almost all of them were there ex officio and had corners to fight. These were the chairmen of the 10 panels and of the 10 regional arts boards. The council was a cockpit of competing interests. Controversial decisions were either not taken, or were botched, or had to be forced on an unwilling, cross-tempered committee by a wily and determined chairman. When a clear line was agreed, council members often felt they did not "own" it and jumped ship at the first sign of trouble. This is not a sensible way to run a business that spends pounds 400m of citizens' money every year.

The result of all this was that budgets became sclerotic. In all my years at the council, there was only one serious effort to shift the balance between the historic financial shares set aside for the different art- forms. After massive consultation, long retreats in country hotels and mountains of paperwork, a small cut to the drama allocation was made for the benefit of dance. It all ended in tears and the then chairman of the drama panel, Brian Rix, resigned. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, the lesson it taught those interested in change was clear - the great satrapies could not be touched.

No wonder Gerry Robinson (and in the shadows, Chris Smith, the culture secretary) thought it was time to call it a day. Although the final number has not been announced, the new council will be no more than 10, or at most 12, people strong. Being no fool, Mr Robinson will sweeten the pill by extending the membership of a few pliant favourites from the ancien regime.

The second problem facing the Arts Council is, to put it bluntly, that the panels are off-message. They stand for professional excellence in drama, music, dance and so forth and are stocked with the great and good of the traditional art forms. That, of course, is exactly as it should be. But the council's policy, which used to focus almost exclusively on the "high" or elite arts, is now (rightly) opening up to include amateur and participatory practice and the cultural industries. So there is more and more competition for scarce resources.

It is also likely that the present system of regular yearly grants will be reviewed. A move to something more like fixed-term contracts for services rendered is now on the cards. Those representing the arts organisations which benefit from the present arrangements are no more likely to vote for such an innovation than turkeys are for Christmas.

These developments pose a real threat to an old guard that bitterly resents losing its one-time monopoly of Arts Council money and will do what it can to prevent or at least slow down change. If Gerry Robinson seriously wants a system that strikes a fair balance between help for brass bands as well as for opera, for film and video as well as for poetry, for arts in hospitals and prisons as well as in concert halls and galleries, he may well feel he has little alternative to clearing the top table of its cluster of special interests.

But even if he has reasonable grounds for acting as he has done, Mr Robinson does have a case to answer in other respects. He would be wrong to fill his slimline council with other businessmen of his ilk or second-rate culture hacks, as some of his critics fear. The new committee will only prosper if he attracts arts personalities of real distinction to work with him.

His instinct when he was first appointed was to do away with panels altogether and he may well privately welcome the thespians' rush to the exits. That would be foolish. The use of talented and expert volunteers has been one of the glories of the old way of doing things at the Arts Council. It has helped to ensure good decisions and has also been a way of gaining the consent of a volatile community of individualists and idealists, who have an unstoppable and (as public money usually comes with strings) rather admirable habit of biting the hand that feeds them.

However, the new chairman has had second thoughts and the panels are due to survive (if people can be persuaded to sit on them). They will probably be smaller and will advise senior officials rather than, as they used to do, the Arts Council itself, but they will still be there.

The arts lobby is very powerful and is used to getting its own way. In the coming days we may be hearing a lot more from bothered luvvies - and, indeed, from much-loved artists - that what is going on at the Arts Council marks the end of civilisation as we know it. We would all be wise to take a deep breath and think twice before we rush to man the barricades.

Anthony Everitt was a member of the Arts Council's drama panel from 1974 to 1978. He was the council's Deputy Secretary-General and later Secretary-General, from 1985 to 1994.